BevAlc Insights’ 2021 Irish Whiskey Forecast
More than just a St. Patrick’s Day staple, Irish whiskey is a category undergoing rapid growth and innovation
Irish whiskey may traditionally be associated with St. Patrick’s Day and Irish pubs, but the category has experienced soaring growth over the past two decades, surpassing many other spirits in terms of growth rate. Retailers should expect continued growth in the years to come, with more consumers embracing Irish whiskey as an evergreen beverage and cocktail ingredient while seeking out new brands and styles.
Among the Fastest-Growing Spirits
After the number of Irish distilleries dwindled to just two by the mid-1970s, the Irish whiskey category — which includes all whiskey produced made in Ireland — saw a resurgence in the 1990s, becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing spirits. This has only accelerated over the past decade; between 2010 and 2020, global sales of Irish whiskey grew from five million cases to 12 million cases, according to Drinks Ireland, with the U.S. being the category’s biggest export market.
In 2020, Irish whiskey was Drizly’s third-best selling whiskey subcategory after bourbon and Scotch. It experienced slight year-over-year share growth, holding 8.79 percent of whiskey share in 2020 compared to 8.55 percent of share in 2019.
Though the Covid-19 pandemic presented challenges for Irish whiskey brands as bars shuttered, consumer familiarity with the category meant that some brands reported continued growth. In Pernod Ricard’s half-year earnings report released Feb. 11, 2021, it reported that top-selling Irish whiskey brand Jameson saw 18 percent growth in the U.S. market from July to December 2020. “This shows us that consumers are buying trusted, leading spirits brands, and Jameson is at the forefront of that trend,” says Andrew Eis, the Jameson engagement director at Pernod Ricard USA.
As Irish whiskey has gained more popularity among consumers over the past decade, it has moved beyond its reputation as a St. Patrick’s Day staple, or a go-to choice for shots. More consumers are adding Irish whiskeys to bar carts, exploring new styles and flavors, and using it for cocktails.
“Whereas consumers at one time may have had preconceptions about Irish whiskey, such as flavor or specific occasions, we’re seeing its popularity continue to grow,” says Eis. “This interest has accelerated innovation, which is great news for the category as a whole.”
New Entrants and Category Innovation
The Irish whiskey category has no shortage of well-known brands, many of which have topped Drizly’s best-selling Irish whiskey SKUs list for years. However, the number of distilleries in Ireland has grown from just four in 2010 to 38 in 2019, with new entrants adding more variety and discovery to the category.
“In the coming years, retailers should expect new brands beyond the traditional big players to gain traction, particularly around occasions like St. Patrick’s Day,” says Paquette. Retailers should consider carrying a combination of new brands and trusted favorites in order to optimize sales within the category.
Drizly’s Fastest-Growing Irish Whiskey SKUs
- Irish Mist
- The Whistler
- West Cork
- Dingle Distillery
- Michael Collins
“Now is an exciting time for Irish whiskey as a category and there are tremendous options across all price points,” says Eis, suggesting that retailers find ways to market the category’s versatility for both sipping neat and blending into cocktails. More consumers have become aware of single-malt and age-indicated Irish whiskeys, recognizing parallels with Scotch.
Irish whiskey has also seen innovation in recent years, with producers entering the ready-to-drink (RTD) market with products like Jameson Cold Brew, launched in early 2020. “[It] has not only been very well-received but has also helped bring new consumers,” says Eis. “It’s a clear indicator of the diverse palates of the Irish whiskey consumer.”
Drizly’s Best-Selling Irish Whiskey SKUs, 2020
- Jameson Irish Whiskey
- Tullamore D.E.W. Irish Whiskey
- Jameson Black Barrel
- Redbreast 12 Year
- Proper No. Twelve Irish Whiskey
- Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition
- Bushmills Irish Whiskey
- Jameson Cold Brew
- Green Spot Irish Whiskey
- Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition
Broad Consumer Appeal
The age breakdown of Irish whiskey buyers on Drizly is relatively consistent with the platform’s overall sales breakdown by age. “This suggests that the category appeals broadly across age groups,” says Paquette.
Eis agrees, noting that Irish whiskey continued to garner interest from new entrants to beverage alcohol. “The whiskey category has continued to benefit from consumers, particularly millennials, looking for an elevated, higher-quality drink,” says Eis. Irish whiskey also has a long history of triple distillation, creating a smooth, crowd-pleasing style of whiskey.
Markets that over-index on Irish whiskey sales on Drizly include Seattle, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Austin, Texas, and Queens, N.Y.
Immediate and Future Growth
In the immediate future, retailers should expect Irish whiskey to drive sales over St. Patrick’s Day as many cities cancel parades and large celebrations are put on hold. “The holiday will be celebrated under pandemic restrictions,” says Paquette. “Retailers can expect Irish whiskey to be a sales driver, particularly for on-demand delivery as consumers celebrate at home.”
Eis reports that Jameson will focus on e-commerce this St. Patrick’s Day, offering entertainment kits for at-home festivities online and sharing festive cocktail recipes for at-home bartenders.
But retailers should also prepare for the category’s long-term growth, particularly as innovative new products and premium brands and SKUs draw in new consumers. “Along with the continued growth, Irish whiskey is a category with tremendous versatility that many consumers are starting to better realize as they mix more drinks at home,” says Eis.
As more consumers understand the breadth of the category and embrace it across a variety of occasions, Irish whiskey’s trajectory is poised to continue soaring.